Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ wows audience into silence

02. Mar. 2015 – Music director Eckart Preu chose to open Saturday’s concert by the Spokane Symphony at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox with a performance of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor (1822), the “Unfinished,” one of the world’s best-known pieces of music.

It’s the same piece of music Preu chose to open his tenure as music director in 2004. That performance put Spokane on notice that this new conductor was determined to strip familiar works of their traditional trappings and present them as their first listeners may have heard them – not as comforting aural wallpaper, but vital, sometimes disturbing creations doing what great works of art are meant to do: ask us to change our lives.

From the sad, soft motif that opens the piece, partly a song, partly a sigh, Preu and his musicians presented the B minor symphony not as a collection of lovely melodies, but as Schubert’s first great confrontation with mortality. Perhaps because he had not yet learned how to trace the full arc he achieves in such later works as the C major String Quintet and the B flat Piano Sonata, Schubert never finished the B minor symphony, leaving just two movements complete, and only a sketch of a third. The Spokane Symphony performed the torso that has come down to us with such beauty and precision, however, that its greatness as an independent artwork could not be questioned. Tempos were moderate and steady, allowing each phrase to make its full effect. To avoid any hint of sentimentality, violins, violas and cellos kept their use of vibrato to a minimum, which made the perfection of their phrasing and intonation all the more remarkable.

Following the quiet dying away of the second movement, and before breaking into warm applause, the audience maintained complete silence for a long moment, in recognition of the deep impact the music had made upon them.

To conclude the first half of the program, Preu selected “Ludus” (1977) by the Estonian composer Arvo Part. “Ludus” (“Game”) is a work for two violins and string orchestra, augmented by prepared piano. The soloists in these performances were Mateusz Wolski, concertmaster, and Amanda Howard-Phillips, principal second violin. In an attempt to achieve honesty and permanence in his work, Part deliberately deprives himself of many devices that we accept as basic building blocks of music, such as harmonic variety and changes in tempo and rhythm. Despite these limitations, Part achieves tremendous impact by contrasting passages for the two violin soloists with the repeating motifs played by the strings of the orchestra. In this all-string context, the occasional interjections for prepared piano make a surprisingly great effect.

Even though the two solo parts are comprised of almost identical material, the sequence changes, allowing us to appreciate differences between the players. Although he remains within a single mode, or scale, Part’s writing for the soloists is fiendishly difficult, demanding a resourcefulness of fingering and a variety and stamina of bowing equal to the loftiest works in the repertoire. All were delivered in abundance by Wolski and Howard-Phillips. It was a joy to see them confront and vanquish this challenging work. Especially memorable were repeated passages in which Part asks for an ascending scale to the very highest notes on the fingerboard to be played at a gradually reduced volume, until the sound drifts into inaudibility. Both artists managed these difficulties with mastery, with Wolski demonstrating a sweeter, focused tone, and Howard-Phillips a darker, warmer color.

The entire second half of the concert was comprised of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1802). Of Saturday’s performance, little need be said; in the face of playing and interpretation of this caliber, criticism falls silent. It was an example of that holy grail of music lovers: the fully finished interpretation, in which no phrase was allowed to go slack, no passage performed without making maximum effect. It was a triumph for both orchestra and conductor, and surely fulfilled the promise made when Preu in 2004 walked on the stage of what we then called the Opera House to lead the orchestra in that performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony.

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